As increasing numbers of U.S. companies go, meeting in Europe has become commonplace. Most attendees think no differently about hopping a plane to London than hopping a plane to Boston.
"There are no country boundaries today," comments Andy Dolce, president and CEO of Dolce International. "People meet where their businesses are, and they talk about Amsterdam and Brussels in the same breath as Chicago and New York." Twenty-five percent of all meetings at Dolce's conference resort in France, the Hotel de Fregate, are held by American-based multinational companies. And after surveying corporate executives about their meeting priorities, Dolce plans to add six new conference centers in Europe during the next five years. "Europe keeps popping up as a major need, particularly London, Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam," he says.
What does this mean for the corporate executive who is planning a European meeting? Has the process gotten any easier? To find out, we talked to three readers whose companies meet throughout Europe regularly: Jan Donovan, manager, clinical meetings at Wyeth-Ayerst International Inc., Philadelphia; Barbara Griswold, director of meetings and special events at The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY; and Richard Porth, manager of training administration and meeting planning, McKinsey & Company, New York, NY.
CMI: How often does your company meet in Europe?
Jan Donovan, Wyeth-Ayerst International Inc.: Most of our international meetings are held in Europe--about 70 events a year. They tend to be product-relatedmeetings attended by some home office people and our affiliates from all over the world. We've seen a lot of small, pop-up meetings coming up in Europe lately, and try to find locations that have convenient airline hubs, like London, Paris, and Zurich.
Barbara Griswold, Reader's Digest Association, Inc.: Our company is expanding globally, particularly in Europe, so we're meeting there more often. Out of 120 meetings a year, about 40 percent are in Europe and Eastern Europe. Recently, we've met in Portugal, Brussels, France, and Amsterdam. These are strictly, such as strategic planning and sales conferences.
Richard Porth, McKinsey & Company: We have offices all over the world. During the past five years, we have been doing increasing numbers of meetings outside the U.S., particularly in Europe and Asia. My department plans about 200 meetings a year, and roughly 90 of them are in Europe. They are small internal training meetings that tend to last about two weeks. Last year we met in such European locations as the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Turkey.
CMI:Are you finding it easier to work with European hotels and suppliers now that traveling to Europe is becoming more commonplace?
Porth: Yes. Europeans have become accustomed to us because we are running more meetings there. And we've become accustomed to them because we are going there more often.
This global expansion of meetings has resulted in more partnering between U.S.-based hotel rep firms and European properties, and more partnering with European PCOs [professional conference organizers] and DMCs [destination management companies]. There are also more U.S.-based chains increasing their portfolios in Europe.
We still have to expect differences when working with European hotels, though. For example, many European properties continue to follow an old business model that requires clients to talk to a sales rep about sales and sleeping rooms, a banquet manager about food, and still another person about audiovisual. They're not moving toward a one-contact system as fast as we are.
Griswold: It has become easier for me because I have developed some excellent working relationships with particular hotels and specific national reps from such chains as Hilton and Inter-Continental. People from those offices who call on us understand our needs, and know how we operate and how we run our meetings.
Donovan: It's easier if you can go back to the same property, or work with an international chain. One of our greatest difficulties with European hotels is setting up billing systems. Most European hotels don't want to send direct invoices to the U.S., but that's the way our accountants want us to pay. Meanwhile, international chains such as Hilton will allow us to direct bill.
CMI:In today's global business climate, have you found that European hotels treat corporate groups differently--perhaps even better--than U.S.-based hotels?
Griswold: We are getting treated better in Europe these days. Reader's Digest is highly respected there, and people think of our business as very prestigious. And I think that corporate business in general is becoming more important to European hotels.
Donovan: It depends. A rep for an international chain may value our business, but that doesn't always carry through to the hotel. Some European hotels will jump through hoops for us, but some won't. It partly depends on the time of the year. In crunch seasons, we don't get as much attention to detail.
Porth: One difference we've experienced is that European resorts cater more to their transient clientele, so it can be a bit more difficult to run business meetings there. For example, a resort may not want to give you the patio by the pool for a reception because it would disrupt the experience of the transient guest. It may be that U.S. resorts can hide group functions better because they are bigger.
CMI:Is there a new willingness to negotiate on the part of European hotels?
Griswold: Yes. Overall, our experience is that European companies are beginning to understand the way American planners negotiate. There are still those hotels that stand fast and will not negotiate, but we just stay away from them. We just had a meeting at the Ritz in Lisbon, for example, where the director of sales' initial proposal included offers for VIP upgrades. They also offered to comp the meeting rooms, and hold them for us on a 24-hour basis. That's very different from how it was in the past.
Porth: Yes. More European hotels are realizing that American planners expect a discount off the first offer, so they will build in a fudge factor that gives the planner the feeling of negotiating rates down. This isn't the typical European way. Some still stick to the old school, but overall, European hotels are a lot more willing to negotiate than they were ten years ago.
There are still significant differences interms and conditions, however. All of the fine print, like , cancellation, insurance, indemnification, and performance clauses, are not common in European . I insert a lot more verbiage in my contracts than European suppliers are used to.
Donovan: For us, it depends on variables like the time of the year, or whether the hotel just got a cancellation. If they need our business, they'll negotiate. But that's different from how it is here in the U.S., where as a large pharmaceutical company, we have buying power based on the volume of our business. In Europe, the key to negotiating doesn't seem to be volume.
CMI:Historically, it has been difficult to find function space for corporate meetings in Europe. Is this still the case?
Porth: There's still less meeting space available. That's because European hotels weren't built with a lot of function space, and ballrooms were traditionally used for banquets, receptions, state dinners, or social functions. Planners really have to shop around to find enough space under one roof. Groups of 200 people or more usually have to split up between two or three hotels and meet in congress halls.
Right now, there's a catch-up game going on in Europe. Some new hotels are being built with adequate meeting space, and small congress centers are being constructed next to existing hotels.
CMI:Have European destinations become more affordable due to currency fluctuations?
Donovan: Depending on the location, meeting in Europe can be relatively affordable these days. You can eat more economically in Southern France, for example, than in Washington, D.C. We recently priced facilities for a large meeting in Turkey, and the rates for both meeting space and sleeping rooms were very reasonable.
Porth: Today, The Netherlands and Portugal are relative bargains. Switzerland and Germany have become more affordable. But London, Paris, Moscow, and Brussels are still expensive. Eastern Europe used to be a bargain, but has gone through the roof in desirable locations like Prague.
Griswold: We've saved money by meeting in Europe instead of in the U.S. We considered two locations for our Worldwide Editors in Chiefs and Worldwide Advertising Directors meetings. The first was New York. The second was Lisbon. We discovered that it was less expensive to fly 100 attendees to Lisbon than it was to fly 70 attendees to New York. Further, the New York hotel--in Westchester, not Manhattan--was more expensive than the Lisbon property.